From here on out, every game Arkansas plays will either be against a tournament caliber team with a tournament caliber feel to the game, or will actually be in a tournament.
Razorback head coach Eric Musselman has been able to forge a great deal of improvement in his team over the past month. And while there have certainly been highlight moments that suggest the possibility that elite lives somewhere inside the DNA of this team, it's not there yet.
So let's explore what this team does that makes it potentially elite, and what it does that could prevent it from being truly among the elite.
BEING THE ELITE
Being elite for this team has to start with defense and sheer determination. It took a while, but this team has finally found a healthy dose of both.
This was encapsulated during a series of events in the first half of the Missouri game Tuesday night.
About five minutes in, J.D. Notae turned the ball over. A lot of players would have put their head down in frustration and half-heartedly jogged to mid-court and waited for the inevitable resulting lay-up.
That didn't happen. Instead, Notae threw on the thrusters, cruising stealthily behind his robber's back, and tipped the ball away from behind right to the chest of Williams.
Still not content he had done enough, Noate reversed course, cleared the defense on the Razorback end of the floor and buried a three.
That kind of hustle and determination is what made Nolan Richardon's mid-90s teams elite.
They weren't more talented than a lot of teams they beat. Those opponents were sprinkled with multiple NBA superstars. But Arkansas was sprinkled with players who wanted it more.
There are signs that willingness to do what others won't is building in this team. It's already given them at least one win they shouldn't have won, and helped them get a shot at winning a game where they should have been blown out.
This team's greatest weakness for the first half of the season was its selfishness. It was truly hard to watch as the Hogs rolled out an endless loop of the ball touching one, at most two, sets of hands before a quick, ill-advised shot would get thrown up.
Musselman must have had nightmares all throughout Christmas break of players dribbling down and chunking up a three without so much as a glance at a teammate.
But this is no longer a selfish team. The ball moves around, which makes it easier to get multiple guys involved and in the scoring column.
Defenders have to always be no their toes and moving, and for some of these team, defense just isn't natural. It takes a great deal of stamina and discipline to play great defense.
That's why not even halfway through the first half, Missouri players were sucking wind heavily and had eyes that were glazed over. Fatigue drains the legs and the focus, which leads to big runs.
That last thing that makes this team potentially elite is its ability to draw fouls. They're typically a strong free throw shooting team, so they can stretch a lead of close the gap quickly from the stripe.
It also leads to long periods of time where the other team doesn't have a top player on the floor or who has to play timid on defense, allowing the Razorbacks' aggressiveness to take advantage.
WHAT'S KEEPING THEM FROM BEING ALL IN
Only Eric Musselman knows if there is anything that can be done about this next issue, but if there's a way, he's sure to be the one to cook something up in the lab to make it happen.
Somehow, some way, the Razorbacks have got to get stronger when they go in the paint.
If they beat a guy with speed, they are typically OK, Notae and Davonte Davis are masters at this. But when it comes to getting inside and needing to muscle a shot up to get a tough bucket when it counts, it's just not happening.
It cost them the game at Alabama and was evident at times with Mizzou. If not addressed, it's going to cost them again.
The Razorbacks cannot afford to get rebound after rebound and not have the strength to power it up for points against the opponents in front of them.
There will be times, just like at Alabama, where the refs are going to swallow the whistle, leaving players no choice but to man up or come away empty-handed because free throws aren't coming.
The other issue keeping this team from reaching elite status is its propensity for going on long lulls with no scoring.
These things stretch for over eight minutes at a time, nearly a full period if we were under the old quarter system.
Sometimes this is because either Notae or Jaylin Williams get into foul trouble early and Musselman sends them to purgatory until they can be resurrected the second half. However, sometimes it just looks like a focus issue.
The team will fall into stretches where it fires up three after three instead of attacking the basket.
This is not, nor has it ever been, a strong three-point shooting team. There's a reason why it was this bunch that brought the streak to an end.
Yet, we continue to see long stretches where the players seem to forget their identity. They're a blue collar, inside the arc machine.
Their speed, ability to screen, make cuts without being seen and make passes through tight lanes is uncanny. They can make something happen at any time, but they just forget.
Missouri should have been another 40-point win, but alas the lull. Arkansas should have bounced Alabama right off its court, but, there again, lull.
There's no room for that going forward. This team has to be who they are at all times and the ravenous hunger that makes them so dangerous has to be present at all times.
There is no room for mercy. Being elite means turning the game into a violent nightmare coming from all sides creating a feeling of helplessness from tip to buzzer.
The potential is there. Only time will tell just how elite this group of Razorbacks can be.
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